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Reviewing Higher Education Funding Must Not Entrench The So-Called 'Elite'

09/11/2017 12:00 GMT | Updated 09/11/2017 12:00 GMT

The failure and self-interest of elites has become the conventional wisdom. After Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump, politicians are desperate to connect with the 'just about managing' and those who feel the last twenty years have left them behind.

Universities in general have fallen on the wrong side of this new 'anti-elitist' narrative. The sector's collective horror at Brexit has reinforced a sense that we are self-serving and out of touch. On tuition fees we have been insufficiently vocal on the need for a fairer deal for students and have seemed to ignore genuine public concerns.

For some, the promised 'major review' of university and student funding should put us in our place. I have expressed my thoughts on desirable reform elsewhere. But others clearly think universities should have less money and that there should be fewer of us.

Lord Adonis thinks an institution like mine - a former polytechnic - should never have been allowed to become a university in the first place.

But any reform must be thought through. If the UK is to flourish post-Brexit, it will be as a highly-skilled economy competing on quality not just price. More highly-skilled workers means more people going through higher education. The success of the post-Brexit economy, then, requires a sufficiently- and sustainably-funded higher education system.

It also requires sufficient funding for the universities who disproportionately recruit and educate the children of the left behind and of other first generation university entrants.

Very few of these people will go to the 'elite' universities. There is one regrettable, and one banal, reason for this - and a more important reason why it matters less than people think.

First, the regrettable reason. Our elite universities disproportionately select socially advantaged young people. As the BBC reports, four-fifths of Oxbridge's students are from the top two social classes, against one-third nationally. And while the University of Bristol recruits 40% of its intake from independent schools, at the University of Portsmouth the figure is under 4%.

We can hope that this will change but the banal reason is unavoidable: there are just too few places. In 2015/16 the 'golden triangle' of England's universities educated under 4% of the total full-time under-graduate population - and under 2% of the part-time population. They cannot admit all the people who will need to develop the high-level skills necessary for their own advancement and for society's economic well-being.

Most of the graduates who will build the power house for the country's future economic success will, necessarily, go to 'non-elite' universities. But why should we worry?

The reputation of our elite universities is based on their research; it has little to do with their teaching. Some elite universities do provide the very best education for their students - which, after all, is their core function - but, as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has demonstrated, others do not. Some do considerably worse than universities like Portsmouth, Coventry, De Montfort, Huddersfield, and Nottingham Trent - all of which, incidentally, are former polytechnics that received TEF Gold.

These universities also have much greater success in opening up higher education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are the key to opening up opportunity to all, including key public sector roles such as teachers, nurses, and other health professions. These roles are extremely important and very rewarding. Unfortunately, the reward does not always translate into high graduate salaries.

On average elite university graduates do earn more. But then these universities are the 'most selective' institutions - which means they only admit the highest-performing school-leavers who already hold significant social capital.

More importantly, no-one really believes - or indeed has ever believed - that our labour market allocates human capital efficiently. Indeed, a central strand of the anti-elitist narrative - and one that has considerable force - is that unless you go to the right school or university and know the right people, the odds are stacked against you whatever your talents.

In light of this, we should reject any suggestion to link individual university's funding to their graduates' salaries. While it seems plausible, it would harm the universities that do most to widen participation and 'add value' to their graduates.

The Economist has recently ranked universities through a value-added comparison based of graduates' earnings five years after graduation. I declare an interest - the University of Portsmouth came top. But we were hardly surrounded by the university equivalent of the 'Big Six' - only three Russell Group universities appeared in the top 20.

Linking fees to graduate salary levels would reward the universities who benefit from the UK's traditional research and prestige-based hierarchy. This would reinforce the need for students to go to the 'right' university. It would not help the just about managing and those who feel left behind.

Any review of university funding, then, must resist intuitively appealing, simplistic solutions which, in the longer-term, may only exacerbate the broader problems the country needs to address if we are to have a successful and socially mobile post-Brexit economy and society.